Amy Purdy was 19 when bacterial meningitis stole her legs. She was a competitive snowboarder back then, and a good one. She started riding at 15, after struggling for a few years on skis and deciding the sport just wasn't for her.
But snowboarding was different. It came easily to her. She spent every weekend and break from school traveling to the mountains around her home in Las Vegas. She couldn't get enough. After graduation, she worked as a massage therapist with one goal: make enough money to ditch Vegas and travel the world with her snowboard.
Then she got sick. She spent three weeks in a coma. Her spleen was removed. She lost kidney function. Both of her legs were amputated below the knee and she was given a single-digit chance of survival.
Miraculously, Purdy lived, becoming the first person in Las Vegas in more than 20 years to survive after contracting Neisseria meningitis. "But I didn't know if I would ever snowboard again, or how," she says. "No one I talked to knew of an amputee snowboarder. They knew skiers. But I wanted to do what I loved."
Purdy spent the next two years working with her prosthetist and prosthesis manufacturers to create legs that would allow her to snowboard. There were running legs on the market, and skiing legs, cycling legs and swimming legs. But nothing for snowboarding. She needed legs with ankles that bent well enough to allow her knees to bend properly, which would allow her hips to move correctly. "Without the right ankles, you feel like you're in a full-body cast," she says.
After much trial and error, Purdy had her legs. And once she was back on her snowboard, she slowly continued to perfect them. When she discovered how difficult it was to make a turn on her toe edge -- imagine making a toeside carve without the ability to control the more than 100 muscles in your ankles and feet -- she added wedges under her heels. She never left the house without a roll of duct tape, an amputee snowboarder's best friend.
Over the next few years and in the course of many hours of research, Purdy met another amputee snowboarder and exchanged notes. She began receiving a lot of local attention and publicity for pioneering a new sport for amputees. Then, in 2005, she co-founded Adaptive Action Sports, an organization that helps amputee and paralyzed athletes learn and compete in action sports, including snowboarding, motocross and skateboarding.
AAS partnered with the USA Snowboarding Association to create an adaptive division within the organization with the hopes of becoming part of the international sports scene. "When I was looking for a way to snowboard again, I couldn't find anything," Purdy says. "But there were so many resources for skiing. Every resort has an adaptive skiing school, and if you want to compete, there is a pipeline straight to the Paralympics. I remember thinking, 'If snowboarding is ever part of the Paralympics, I will be there, 100 percent.'" Thanks to Purdy and the efforts of those she's inspired, that could happen as soon as 2014.
For the past few years, Purdy and AAS co-founder Daniel Gale have been working with the USASA and World Snowboarding Federation to apply for inclusion in the Paralympic Games. Last year, they got their first break when the World Snowboarding Federation and the International Paralympic Committee signed a memorandum of understanding to further develop the sport of para-snowboard -- a version of boardercross featuring only single-man time trials -- during 2010 and 2011 with the intention of putting the sport up for a vote to be added to the 2014 Games.
With a global governing body's recognition and three World Cup races planned for 2011, the sport's organizers feel confident it will be accepted to the 2014 lineup in Sochi, Russia. "We're where able-bodied snowboarding was 10 years ago," Gale says. "But we believe we'll get the thumbs-up, and it will change the landscape for the adaptive community." (According to the U.S. Paralympic Committee, a vote on snowboarding is not yet on the agenda for the IPC meeting in June, but it is believed it will be added and possibly voted on at that time.)
The current Winter Paralympics lineup consists of Alpine and cross-country skiing, biathlon, curling and sled hockey. Not the most youthful, or compelling, schedule. And just like the able-bodied Olympics, the Paralympics and its organizers know they need to youth-anize their event. But more than a boon to Paralympic ratings, the addition of snowboarding will surely spark a growth in the sport by creating a new option for adaptive athletes wanting to compete.
Until recently, amputee athletes were all but forced onto two planks, simply because there is more support and infrastructure around adaptive skiing, as well as more knowledgeable coaches and a direct pipeline to competition. "There is going to be a paradigm shift," Gale says. "People will realize it is possible for amputee athletes to snowboard."
That shift will start this January, with the creation of AAS's Pipeline camps. The first set of three-day camps will be held at Sierra at Tahoe Jan. 21-23 and Feb. 24-26, 2011. The camps are designed to create a pathway -- a pipeline, if you will -- for beginner athletes to learn the fundamentals of snowboarding, progress to an intermediate knowledge of the sport and then learn to ride boardercross and compete within the USASA organization.
The first camp is designed for beginners and the second for intermediate training, so an athlete -- whether he or she is learning to snowboard for the first time or re-learning to snowboard after losing a limb -- can jump in wherever is most appropriate. "If we are officially invited to the Paralympic Games, there will be a high demand for athletes who want to participate," Gale says. "These camps will provide them with the necessary training."
Then, at January's Winter X Games 15 in Aspen, Colo., Adaptive Stand-Up Snowboarder X makes its exhibition debut. Purdy, who is also the U.S. women's hopeful for the Paralympic team if her sport gets the nod, plans to pre-run the course before the men-only race. Next year, she hopes she has some competition.